Joking Apart is one of Alan Ayckbourn’s favourites of his own plays, and it is not difficult to see why. As the laughter of recognition that resounded around Nottingham Playhouse demonstrated, this play epitomises Ayckbourn’s incisive critique (and celebration) of the middle classes. Moving from playful mockery of one couple’s reaction to a breach of etiquette to a biting depiction of bitter resentment at ‘the lucky ones’, Lucy Pitman-Wallace’s fresh production invites the audience to see its own neuroses played out on-stage and dares it to laugh.
Jumping three years at a time, the play’s four scenes take place in the back garden of the irritatingly perfect Anthea and Richard, whose barbecues and Christmas parties bring together a group of increasingly embittered couples. In the standout sequence, the flustered young vicar Hugh (Edward Harrison) stammers and stutters as the guests carry out a masterfully timed assassination on their temporarily absent hosts, letting loaded pauses shift the mood from gratitude to damnation of the couple for their insidious, controlling ways. Hugh, never wanting to displease, is left on the periphery while his wife and their friends lean in, bonding over their shared distrust before reverting to smiles and pleasantness when Anthea and Richard return with more drinks.
Anthea and Richard provide the play’s constants. Endearingly informal, careless of pretension and not aging a day over the twelve years, the couple embody the middle-class standard to which the rest of the play’s characters aspire. Yet there is also a shallowness to their perfection, best shown as Anthea dismisses Brian – secretly in love with her for years – as ‘a neutral, a nothing’. Pithon’s airy voice, in a moment of such breathtaking ignorance, reveals an oblivious selfishness only hinted at earlier. Following this up by explaining to her daughter Debbie that people such as they are obliged to ‘help’ the ‘less fortunate’, Pitham plays Anthea not as manipulative, but as patronising in her sense of her own charity. That the play closes on her daughter’s dismissal of the same ‘Uncle Brian’ suggests the fundamental shallowness underpinning these characters’ interactions.
The bickerings of the couples are finely observed. Natasha Byrne’s Olive sneers jealously at Anthea’s never-changing figure while snacking on chocolates in her handbag, and defers for most of the play to her pompous Finnish husband Sven (an excellent Thorston Manderlay). Sven, with his stubbornness to ever admit wrong, is initially the butt of the play’s patronising jokes, until a developing heart condition finds him confined in a garden chair upstage, talked over and ignored by the wife and friends he is so desperate to be relevant to. It is Sven who is accorded the play’s most acerbic remarks as he finally tells Debbie, on her eighteenth birthday, that she was born not with a silver spoon, but with a whole cutlery drawer in her mouth.
The more poignant story belongs to Hugh and his wife Louise, the unloving couple battling with a child who is initially violent, then proves to be a mathematical genius who disowns them. Louise’s anxiety, initially manifest in her inability to tolerate loud bangs or her husband’s lateness, becomes the gnawing discontent that sours the play, with Sally Scott offering a chilling study in passive aggressive behaviour towards everybody else. It is disappointing, then, that the production finally turns her into a clown, appearing highly medicated and decorated in garish make-up while fondling a toy doll.
The production’s strength is in its witty nuance and capture of fine mannerisms, and the laughter generated by her appearance feels unnecessarily cruel. It is Hugh’s appearance in the final scene as a deadened, inarticulate wreck of a man that is most effective, following his desperately sincere declarations of love for Anthea in the previous scene. Trapped in a paralysis best embodied by the never-changing Will Barton as Brian, whose love for Anthea drives him through a succession of entertainingly inappropriate girlfriends (all Katie Brayben), Pitman-Wallace’s cast offer a searing indictment of social hypocrisy. Yet whether the production did enough to point out to an audience its own culpability in its apparent pleasure in the characters’ misfortunes is another question. An entertaining comedy, but a little less laughter may have been no bad thing.